All posts by Dan Dobson

Dan is an undergrad student studying geography

Human Spaceflight, Babies and Birkbeck Science

London is one of the greatest cities in the world for science and technology research, development, events, workshops and festivals. This includes not only the London Science Festival, London Technology Week and the Science Museum, but also hubs of scientific innovation within a few hundred metres of Birkbeck, including UCL, The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and The Wellcome Trust.

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

Behind Birkbeck, just a metre below Malet Street, insectaries at LSHTM house numerous insects which are used to research the relationships between humans and insects (you may have seen its Professor James Logan swallow hookworms on Channel 4’s ‘Embarrassing Bodies’).

Birkbeck – Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Within Birkbeck itself, some of the most amazing scientific research is being conducted. In the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, for example, Professor Ian Crawford was appointed in January to the European Space Agency’s advisory committee on Human Spaceflight and Exploration, and has also been involved in looking at the possibility of intergalactic spaceships. Another professor in the department, Gerald Roberts has been appointed as a project scientist on the joint NASA/UK Space Agency mission to use seismic technology to collect data on quakes on Mars, with the aim of trying to clarify the likelihood of active volcanism on the planet.

Birkbeck BabyLab – Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development

Birkbeck’s BabyLab has been undertaking ground-breaking research on detecting autism in babies. Currently one of the major problems in autism diagnosis is that children who will go on to develop autism rarely show signs of the disorder until the age of two.

Researchers at BabyLab placed passive sensors on babies between the ages of six and ten months old who had a family history of developing autism. These sensors then picked up the babies brain activity when they were shown images of an adult whose eyes first looked at them, and then looked away, or vice versa.

Three years later, by looking at which babies had gone on to develop autism, the researchers were able to compare and contrast the brain activity of the babies who had and the babies who hadn’t developed the condition. The results showed that while children under the age of two who went on to develop autism did not display any outward signs of developing the condition, they were, however, already beginning to process information in a very different way. And in 2012, BabyLab’s parent department, the Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (CBCD), became part of a five-year, €29 million EU project to investigate autism.

The Department of Psychological Sciences

You yourself can also contribute to some of the scientific research being conducted at Birkbeck: the CBCD’s Alpha Lab is looking for volunteers to do a 30 minute listening experiment. Volunteers will receive £5, and the Department of Psychological Sciences encourages you to register for and take part in other current or future experiments (often for remuneration). In addition, you will occasionally receive emails from your own department with requests from fellow students to complete a survey for their research. I urge you to do these. Who knows? One day you may well also be requiring your fellow students’ help with your own research.

Image credit: Sweetie187 — CC BY 2.0

Rehabilitation: the ballad of not reading in gaol

Writers and activists congregated outside Pentonville Prison on Friday 28th March, among them Vanessa Redgrave, the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and the head of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, to protest against a recent ban on sending books to prisoners.

The protest, which has been dubbed The Ballad of Not Reading in Gaol, consisted of poetry readings outside the prison, after the political news website reported that the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, had instituted the ban. The new rules, introduced last November, prohibit families and outsiders from sending in parcels. As well as books, this prohibits families from sending in clothes and children can’t even send greetings cards to a parent. The inclusion of clothing within the ban has particularly affected female inmates, who are not issued uniform, leaving them with little choice but to wear the same underwear for months.

The Ministry of Justice has so far stood fast on the policy, with Mr Grayling saying that it is part of measures to stop drugs, extremist material and other banned items from entering prisons. They have been quick to point out that books in themselves are not banned, and that prisoners can have up to 12 books in a cell at any one time. Mr Grayling gave an example on ITV news of a mobile phone being smuggled into prison in a Weetabix box.

Mr Grayling has become increasingly isolated over the issue, with many of his claims proving false. The prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time has said that his claim about the mobile in the Weetabix box must be untrue as food has long been banned from being sent in. And in a letter to Inside Time, Nicholas Jordon, an inmate at HMP Oakwood, said that any prisoner with 12 books is a “lucky sod!” He went on to say that at Oakwood “there is no system in place to purchase books. We can buy games consoles or DVD players but cannot get books for love nor money. And neither can we have them sent in. The prison library is poorly stocked.”

Critics of the policy have included backbench Tory MPs, a former governor of Pentonville, Gareth Davies, and the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Harwick, who first raised awareness of the issue. Labour have pledged to repeal it if they win the election and 78 writers, including Philip Pullman, Mark Haddon, Mary Beard and Salmon Rushdie, signed an open letter to Mr Grayling condemning the policy, published in The Daily Telegraph..

In a statement from the Prisoners’ Education Trust, its chief executive, Rod Clark, said: “We know this is badly affecting prisoners. We’ve had letters from our learners and one prisoner I met couldn’t get his academic textbooks he had ordered from an approved, secure supplier.”

He went on to say “we know that education helps reduce reoffending, so this ban is counter-productive in supporting their rehabilitation.”

Keeping ahead with technology: make your first 3D print at iMakr

As a student it’s important to keep abreast of new technologies. The courses we study at Birkbeck are fantastic, but they can’t and don’t always include the most up-to-date information because of the fast-paced technological environment we live in.

One of the latest things to have arrive is iMakr, which proclaims  itself one of the largest 3D printing shops in the world, and earlier on in the month I popped in to have a go at their “Make your first 3D print” workshop.

Make you first 3D print

Consisting of a one-to-one computer-based tutorial, iMakr used a freely available computer-aided design software called Sketch-Up, which enables you to make a choice from a number of pre-selected different designs, from Lego bricks to key fobs, using various geometrical shapes. It provided a fascinating insight into what is a new and still developing technology and I came away with my very own Lego brick.

The “make your first 3D print” at iMakr costs £29 and covers a 30-40 minute computer-based tutorial and the opportunity to design, print and take home your own 3D printed object. iMakr can be found close to where Clerkenwell Road is intersected by Farringdon Road.

Should that whet your appetite a bit, Clerkenwell will be hosting its  own Design Week in May, a gathering and exhibition of some of the best designers in the country. It promises to be a fascinating experience and as we find ourselves in need of the occasional break from those long days and evenings preparing for exams, Clerkenwell Road might just be the place to visit.

Clerkenwell Design Week is at various venues around Clerkenwell Road from 20-22 May. Entry is free but registration is needed and can be done online at


Why this immigration rhetoric needs to stop: Sebastian

I’m trying to remember when I met Sebastian. It was before I had been to the Azores, which was in 2006, so I’m going to say 2005. I would have been 19.

Sebastian was a Polish medical student and like many Poles at the time (Poland had recently joined the European Union and Britain had opened its labour market to them), he had come to Britain for a few months to earn some money.

He was staying in my boss’s old static caravan in the field whilst we were working at a plant nursery. He was a quiet man, one or two years older than me at the most, but we became friends over those months. I have always liked to make people of a quiet nature feel welcome, as I am very much of that camp myself when in a new group of people.

There isn’t a huge amount to say about our friendship during those months. We would talk during tea breaks and lunch. My boss would for some reason keep him away from us during most of the day. I understand if I remember rightly that he was going to get married soon after returning to Poland.

A couple of occasions occurred when Sebastian had accidentally flooded the mower or broke a tool (something which is not uncommon due to the general cheapness of all the tools we have at work) but on these occasions my boss had threatened to take money out of Sebastian’s salary to pay for their repair or replacement and I had told Sebastian on both occasions that if my boss does do this I would help him out. There was, however, an largely unspoken but evident displeasure amongst the work team at this, and fortunately he never did get his wages docked.

When his time at the nursery came to an end we threw a party for him in the garden of one of the ladies who used to work at the nursery. He was going to spend a few days in London with some friends before going back to Poland and I gave him an envelope with £50 in it as a gift to spend in London. I remember how grateful he was and also him returning my Rizla packet which I had somehow accidentally dropped into the envelope.

A few months later, a Polish girl, Agatha, was working with us. She had met Sebastian once and handed me a bottle of Polish bison grass vodka that Sebastian had bought for me.

He had left an email address for me to contact him but unfortunately I never could get it to work. I haven’t spoken to or seen Sebastian since, but I hope he is well.

Thinking about Sebastian it makes me sad that the Government should take the regressive attitude it does to migration, and equally as sad that Jack Straw, the former Labour Home Secretary, regrets opening our borders when we did. Friendships such as that with Sebastian can be short. In most cases hopefully they last longer. They don’t happen at all if we’re insular and closed off from the rest of the world.

The Government should do a lot more to promote the virtues of migration. As Hein de Haas of Oxford’s International Migration Institute said, “Migration is a testimony to people’s imagination, creativity, and determination to make things happen, against all the odds.”